Memorial Tributes: Volume 27
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  • ROSS E. MCKINNEY (1926-2021)



    ROSS ERWIN MCKINNEY, a revolutionary researcher and educational leader, died on September 18, 2021, at the age of 95.

    Ross was born in San Antonio, Texas, on August 2, 1926, to Roy Earl McKinney and Beatrice Vivian McKinney. Ross enlisted in the Navy during World War II and earned his college degree through GI grants, graduating from Southern Methodist University in 1948 with dual degrees: a BS in civil engineering and a BA in mathematics. His desire for higher education led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Ross was accepted into the newly formed Sanitary Engineering program in July 1948 following rejection from the Chemistry Department—a gift for which the environmental world will forever be grateful. Ross pursued his SM in sanitary engineering with passion and earned his degree in 1949 with eight classmates. His engineering and science excellence led to the opportunity to serve as a laboratory assistant to Professor Clair Sawyer and begin his doctorate—a path that deviated from his original intent. While working with Professor Sawyer, he became enamored with activated sludge, which formed the basis for his lifetime commitment to marrying science and engineering to enable de-sign efficiencies. He earned his ScD in sanitary engineering from MIT in 1951. It was during his time at MIT that he met his lovely wife, Margaret Curtis, who was a student at Wellesley College.

    After a brief engagement working with the Southwest Foundation for Research and Education in San Antonio, Ross returned to MIT to join the faculty as an assistant professor in 1953. During his seven years on the MIT faculty, Ross influenced the environmental engineering field through the development and graduation of numerous excellent master’s and doctoral graduates. Most importantly, he disrupted the traditional academic sanitary engineering curriculum. With the characteristics of wastewater changing because of the increased manufacturing of plastic- and chemical-based products, he reasoned that the biological treatment of wastewater using a handbook design from the 1940s would not be adequate. He wanted students to learn microbiology, chemistry, and biochemistry so that biological treatment processes could be designed and operated on a sound scientific basis. Ross was able to convince Professor Rolf Eliassen and Professor Sawyer (both famous leaders in the field) of the soundness of his plan, and the MIT teaching curriculum was revamped to teach those subjects. As doctoral graduates of this revised curriculum took positions at other schools, began using this concept, and passed on Ross’s novel teachings to their own doctoral students, the concept’s popularity grew rather like a nuclear chain reaction. Now this approach is used in most engineering departments, and it all started with an idea that a young Ross had nearly 70 years ago.

    Ross headed west from Wellesley, Massachu­setts, to Lawrence, Kansas, in the summer of 1960 to begin work at the University of Kansas (KU). While the initial job description was for a full professor in research with no teaching, the role soon expanded to include teaching because of Ross’s passion for it. Ross named the newly formed department the Environmental Health Engineering and Science Program. He created the master’s programs first and expanded to the doctoral program when demand was sufficient. In alignment with his curriculum philosophy that he started at MIT, he mixed the engineering students and the science students together and thus instituted KU’s influential brand of excellence in environmental engineering. Ross’s devotion to excellence in teaching and research, in combination with practical experience in engineering, created the foundation to transform the environmental engineering sector worldwide. During his academic career, he oversaw more than 150 theses for graduate degrees in environmental engineering. He was one of the first Americans invited to the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and made five trips to teach at Tong Ji University in Shanghai over the next 10 years.

    Ross served on the faculty at KU from 1960 until his retirement in 1993. In 1963, he was appointed chairman of the Civil Engineering Department. After three years as chair, he accepted a chaired professorship to focus on his priorities of teaching and research. In 1976, he became the first N.T. Veatch Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering. In 1977, he was elected to the prestigious National Academy of Engineering for his groundbreaking research on the micro-biology of wastewater treatment and the advancement of environmental engineering. In 1992, he was recognized for his career contributions to KU when he was awarded the Chancellor’s Club Career Teaching Award. The KU School of Engineering awarded him the Distinguished Engineering Service Award in 2016.

    His publications are numerous and have changed the course of wastewater treatment. Particularly influential were his textbooks, especially Microbiology for Sanitary Engineers (McGraw-Hill, 1962), which documents the groundbreaking science fundamentals applicable to the design of activated sludge systems, and his historical perspective on pollution control, Environmental Pollution Control Microbiology: A Fifty-Year Perspective (CRC Press, 2004).

    In 1996, Ross and Margaret moved to Durham, North Carolina, to be close to many of their children and grandchildren. Never one to be idle, Ross became an adjunct professor at Duke University to keep up with the major developments in engineering education and to use the Duke libraries, where he could continue to research areas of interest. During this time, he produced his personal memoir, My History of Sanitary Engineering Old Course XI at M.I.T., which he self-published.

    While his work took him all over the world, he was better known to family members for leading month-long vacations in the family station wagon to many national parks and monuments (and, occasionally, sewage treatment plants). His love of sports, especially his beloved basketball team, KU’s Jayhawks, his passion for photography, and his remarkable curiosity will live on through those who loved him most. Ross was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Margaret Curtis McKinney; his parents; and his brothers, Roy Earl McKinney, Jr., and Walter Sims McKinney. He is survived by his children, Ross Erwin McKinney, Jr. (Holly), Margaret McKinney-Kane, William Saylors McKinney (Laura), and Susanne Curtis McKinney; six grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren.

    Never at a loss for words, when once asked if he had an opinion on a subject, he replied, “I have an opinion about everything.” And he used his opinions to influence the environmental industry to make communities healthier and to create better places to live and work. Few people have had more influence on bringing about a better society than Ross E. McKinney.